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Instrumental Conditioning: Changing Behaviors or Acquiring Knowledge?

Instrumental Conditioning: Changing Behaviors or Acquiring Knowledge?
We’ve almost finished our discussion of instrumental conditioning, except for one cru-cial question: What is it exactly that animals learn in an instrumental conditioning procedure?

Changing Behaviors or Acquiring Knowledge?

We’ve almost finished our discussion of instrumental conditioning, except for one cru-cial question: What is it exactly that animals learn in an instrumental conditioning procedure? The law of effect implies that the learning is best understood as a change in behavior, in which responses are either being strengthened or weakened by the mechanical effects of reinforcement. From the earliest days of learning theory, however, there was an alternative view of conditioning—one asserting that behavior change isn’t the key; what matters instead is the acquisition of new knowledge.

One of the most prominent proponents of this alternative view was Edward C. Tolman (1886–1959; Figure 7.26), and many forms of evidence support his position. For example, consider cases of latent learning—learning that takes place without any corresponding change in behavior. In one experiment, rats were allowed to explore a maze, without any reward, for 10 days. During these days, there was no detectable change in the rats’ behavior; and so, if we define learning in terms of behavior change, there was no learning. But in truth the rats were learning—and in particular, they were gaining knowledge about how to navigate the maze’s corridors. This became obvious on the 11th day, when food was placed in the maze’s goal box for the first time. The rats learned to run to this goal box, virtually without error, almost immediately. The knowledge they had acquired earlier now took on motivational significance, so the animals swiftly displayed what they had learned (Tolman & Honzik, 1930; also H. Gleitman, 1963; Tolman, 1948).

In this case, the knowledge the rats had gained can be understood as a mental map of the maze—an internal representation of spatial layout that indicates what is where and what leads to what. Other evidence suggests that many species rely on such maps—to guide their foraging for food, their navigation to places of safety, and their choice of a path to the watering hole. These maps can be relatively complex and are typically quite accurate (Gallistel, 1994; J. Gould, 1990).


To understand latent learning or cognitive maps, we need to emphasize what an organ-ism knows more than what an organism does. We also need to consider an organism’s cognition for another reason: Recall that, in our discussion of classical conditioning, we saw that learning doesn’t depend only on the CS being paired with the US; instead, the CS needs to predict the US, telling the animal when the US is more likely and when it’s less likely. Similarly, instrumental conditioning doesn’t depend only on responses being paired with rewards. Instead, the response needs to predict the reward, so that (for example) the probability of getting a pellet after a lever press has to be greater than the probability of getting it without the press.

What matters for instrumental conditioning, therefore, is not merely the fact that a reward arrives after the response is made. Instead, what matters is the relationship between responding and getting the reward, and this relationship actually gives the animal some control over the reward: By choosing when (or whether) to respond, the animal itself can determine when the reward is delivered. And it turns out that this con-trol is important, because animals can tell when they’re in control and when they’re not—and they clearly prefer being in control.

One line of evidence comes from a study in which infants were placed in cribs that had colorful mobiles hanging above them. Whenever the infants moved their heads, they closed a switch in their pillows; this activated the overhead mobile, which spun merrily for a second or so. The infants soon learned to shake their heads about, making their mobiles turn. They evidently enjoyed this, smiling and cooing at their mobiles, clearly delighted to see the mobiles move.

A second group of infants was exposed to a similar situation, but with one important difference: Their mobile turned just as often as the mobile for the first group; but it was moved for them, not by them. This difference turned out to be crucial. After a few days, these infants no longer smiled and cooed at the mobile, nor did they seem particularly interested when it turned. This suggests that what the first group of infants liked about the mobile was not that it moved, but that they made it move. Even a 2-month-old infant wants to be the master of his own fate (J. S. Watson, 1967; Figure 7.27).

This study with infants illustrates the joy of mastery. Another series of studies demonstrates the despair of no mastery at all. These studies focus on learnedhelplessness—an acquired sense that one has lost control over one’s environment,with the sad consequence that one gives up trying (Seligman, 1975).

The classic experiment on learned helplessness used two groups of dogs, A and B, which received strong electric shocks while strapped in a hammock. The dogs in group A were able to exert some control over their situation: They could turn the shock off whenever it began simply by pushing a panel that was placed close to their noses. The dogs in group B had no such power. For them, the shocks were inescapable. But the number and duration of the shocks were the same as for the first group. This was guar-anteed by the fact that, for each dog in group A, there was a corresponding animal in group B whose fate was yoked to that of the first dog. Whenever the group A dog was shocked, so was the group B dog. Whenever the group A dog turned off the shock, the shock was turned off for the group B dog. Thus, both groups experienced exactly the same level of physical suffering; the only difference was what the animals were able to do about it. The dogs in group A had some control; those in group B could only endure.

What did the group B dogs learn in this situation? To find out, both groups of dogs were next presented with a task in which they had to learn to jump from one compart-ment to another to avoid a shock. The dogs in group A learned easily. During the first few trials, they ran about frantically when the shock began but eventually scrambled over the hurdle into the other compartment, where there was no shock. Based on this experience, they soon learned to leap over the hurdle the moment the shock began, eas-ily escaping the aversive experience. Then, with just a few more trials, these dogs learned something even better: They jumped over the hurdle as soon as they heard the tone signaling that shock was about to begin; as a result, they avoided the shock entirely.

Things were different for the dogs in group B, those that had previously experienced the inescapable shock. Initially, these dogs responded to the electric shock just like the group A dogs did—running about, whimpering, and so on. But they soon became much more passive. They lay down, whined, and simply took whatever shocks were delivered. They neither avoided nor escaped; they just gave up. In the earlier phase of the experiment, they really had been objectively helpless; there truly was nothing they could do. In the shuttle box, however, their helplessness was only subjective because now they did have a way to escape the shocks. But they never discovered it, because they had learned to be helpless (Seligman & Maier, 1967).

Martin Seligman, one of the discoverers of the learned helplessness effect, asserts that depression in humans can develop in a similar way. Like the dog that has learned to be helpless, Seligman argues, the depressed patient has come to believe that nothing she does will improve her circumstances. And Seligman maintains that, like the dog, the depressed patient has reached this morbid state by experiencing a situation in which she really was helpless. While the dog received inescapable shocks in its hammock, the patient found herself powerless in the face of bereavement, some career failure, or seri-ous illness (Seligman, Klein, & Miller, 1976). In both cases, the outcome is the same—a belief that there’s no contingency between acts and outcomes, and so there’s no point in trying. 

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